Biohacking is Trendy But Could Make You Sick

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Need to Know from SafeWise
  • Biohacking and polypharmacy are hot topics on social media sites.
  • Supplements can negatively interact with prescriptions.
  • Supplements aren't regulated like medications are and can contain harmful substances.
  • Always consult with a medical professional before taking a new supplement, even if it's "all natural."

Social media (particularly TikTok) is buzzing with the latest supplement trends. Influencers are using vitamins, mushrooms and minerals to “hack” your health, a trend called biohacking. Scroll through your feed and you’ll find everything from basic advice like taking vitamin D to boost your energy to polypharmacy influencers like the tech entrepreneur Bryan Johnson, who takes 100 supplements a day to stay young. And there’s no shortage of ads for mushroom supplements to boost your brain power or replace your coffee habit.

Even though these supplements can be purchased without a prescription, that doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous. For more information about the safety of supplements, we interviewed Bill Willis, a Ph.D. in biomedical science and a researcher with Examine.com.

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Image: Thesis, Pexels

What are the dangers of taking multiple supplements a day?

One danger is that they may interact with each other in a bad way if they’re taken within a couple of hours of each other. For example, taking magnesium will reduce zinc’s absorption, so you won’t be getting as much zinc as you think you are if you take the two at around the same time. Same goes for most fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin K and vitamin D.

Sometimes, a combination can cause serious medical problems. For example, taking the combination of St. John’s wort for depression and kava for anxiety may lead to serious liver problems, and also increase side effects. This is particularly concerning since depression and anxiety often co-exist, leading to an increased risk that someone who’s considering supplements would take both of these.

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Keep your meds and supplements from negatively interacting

Regular medication therapy management sessions with your pharmacist can prevent you from taking supplements that interact with your prescriptions. Ask your pharmacy about setting up a medication therapy management meeting. Learn more about how to handle medications safely in our guide.

There’s also the risk of going overboard when it comes to vitamins and minerals. If someone is taking a multivitamin on top of other supplements or enriched food products containing single vitamins, they may get more than the recommended dose. Sometimes, this isn’t a huge problem. But sometimes it can be, like in the case of getting mega-doses of iron or niacin.

Mega-doses are a particular problem for supplements, because they’re not very well regulated, and you don’t always know whether the dose on the bottle matches what’s actually in the pill you’re taking. Sometimes you can get much more—or much less—than what’s on the label with each dose. And sometimes the dose can jump around depending on the batch.

Finally, because of the loose regulation of supplements, each supplement you take may also increase the risk of taking a contaminated substance. While contamination occasionally still happens with well-regulated pharmaceuticals, it’s a bigger concern for supplements. Sometimes shady manufacturers intentionally put drugs in supplements; this happens most frequently with sexual health, fat burner, and pre-workout blends.

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Your supplements may be contaminated

In 2016, some fat-burning supplements were found to contain banned stimulant drugs. This is just one example of dangerous substances being added to supplements. In 2019, U.S. Marshals seized more than 300,000 containers of dietary supplements because they contained lead.

Contamination can also be a concern for herbal supplements, which sometimes have other plants mixed in due to how they’re processed. Most of the time, contamination is accidental, but that doesn’t make it unproblematic.

Polypharmacy is big in the world of biohacking. Could you explain polypharmacy?

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Polypharmacy is a bit of a loose term with no crystal-clear definition. In general, it just means taking a lot of medications. Sometimes this is necessary or useful, especially when someone has a lot of medical conditions or has a single condition that isn’t fully treated by a single drug.

However, polypharmacy often (but not always) has a negative connotation. In this case, it usually means that they’re taking “too many” drugs. What “too many” actually means is flexible, but it roughly means that they’re taking at least one drug they don’t need to take, either because they no longer have a condition that the drug was treating, the combination of drugs they’re taking has more costs than benefits, or because the other treatments they’re receiving are doing a good enough job.

Supplements are not drugs, but I think one can also take “too many” supplements for similar reasons. But “polysupplementation” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue!

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Vitamins are dangerous to children

Gummy vitamins are tasty, maybe too tasty. They are one of the top five causes of accidental poisoning in children. Make sure to keep your supplements away from kids, ideally in a locking safe or cabinet.

What should you do if you notice a friend or family member downing a handful of supplements every day to help them avoid problems?

Ask some questions:

  1. Have you chatted with a doctor or pharmacist about all those supplements you’re taking? If not, it’s probably a good idea to encourage them to go over all the supplements they’re taking with a medical professional. Effective supplementation is hard!
  2. Do you have a good reason for taking each of those supplements, and can you explain what it is? “To be healthier” isn’t a good reason—it’s quite vague! Look for specific problems they’re trying to solve or prevent.
  3. How do you know whether those supplements are effective for what you’re taking them for? A lot of supplements have little evidence to back them up. 
  4. How do you know whether those supplements contain what it says on the label? Like I said, some supplements can be contaminated or have doses that don’t match what’s on the label. If your friend or family member doesn’t know this, let them know! And then point them to a handful of reputable third parties that test supplements to make sure they’re pure and dosed well, such as ConsumerLab, UL, NSF International or Labdoor. 

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Alina Bradford
Written by
Alina Bradford
Alina is a safety and security expert that has contributed her insights to CNET, CBS, Digital Trends, MTV, Top Ten Reviews, and many others. Her goal is to make safety and security gadgets less mystifying one article at a time. In the early 2000s, Alina worked as a volunteer firefighter, earning her first responder certification and paving the way to her current career. Her activities aren’t nearly as dangerous today. Her hobbies include fixing up her 100-year-old house, doing artsy stuff, and going to the lake with her family.

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